Councillors will this week be voting at Borough, District and County level on proposals for reforming local government in Northamptonshire. The outcome is predictable: the county will be split into two ‘unitary’ authorities. Will their decision ultimately be financially disastrous for residents and businesses across the region?
For whatever cause, austerity, ineptitude or sheer bad luck, Northamptonshire, like many other councils in the country, is failing its people. This is not political failure, though politics is in play, it is an altogether bigger thing where the dynamics of an ever changing population meet an absence of planning foresight and where scarcity of funds combine with a local government generally lacking the ability and agility to respond to rapidly evolving circumstances.
Local government is responsible for delivering the essentials for the wellbeing of their community; responsive and trustworthy emergency services, good health and welfare, high quality education, safe roads with reliable public transport and, above all, positive civic vision and leadership. In the face of the county’s catastrophic financial failure Northamptonshire’s elected representatives are now having to decide how these public services are to be provided in the future.
The Secretary of State imposed strict conditions when he ordered the reorganization of Northamptonshire’s councils. As Councillors prepare to vote it is essential to review those conditions starting with the unjustified instruction to sever the county into two simply because the new authority areas must contain at least 300,000 resident. In fact only eleven of UK’s 55 unitary authorities have a population over 300,000. Though population size probably does matter it need not be the sole deciding factor. Slicing the county into two ignores the precise needs of the differing communities that will find themselves in the care of a new single authority. The councillors will stand up and say no to this split when they vote?
Condition number two is the requirement to reorganise and reform on the basis of a police authority area. But police authority areas are irrelevant to those communities on the county’s fringes. Whether it is access to shops, hospitals, workplaces or schools it is people and places that matter not the jurisdiction of a Chief Constable or Police and Crime Commissioner. Will Councillors agree that today’s bobby’s beats should shape tomorrow’s?
Third is the requirement that the proposal should have solid public support. The recent consultation exercise clearly failed in that respect. Fewer than 1% of all residents responded. To put it differently, just about 2% of Northamptonshire households gave an opinion. Will the councilors claim to have solid public backing for their decision?
More generally, and barely mentioned other than in the context of the potential for increased tax income, is the planned developments that swing through Northamptonshire following an arc stretching from Oxford to Cambridge. This proposed major infrastructure project involves new rail and road links servicing a corridor of interconnected new and expanded villages loosely associated with our existing towns. This is development on a vast scale with tens of thousands of new homes sprawling across virgin countryside. The new authorities are going to have to cope with implementing that ambition but there’s no mention in the proposal of any strategy or tactic to handle the social and community planning needs of such a major undertaking. What will voting councilors have to say on this?
It is current thinking that Town and Parish Councils could deliver more of the truly local services. Expanding this tier of government is at odds with the aim of achieving economies of scale through bringing all services under one organisational umbrella. Is that going to be approved by the elected representatives?
Last but not least is the proposal’s preoccupation with cash. It obsesses about paying for the reforms, about starting with a clean slate or not, and about the financial benefits of reorganisation. What is never mentioned is the quite evident dearth of talent able to drive through reform. Today’s council leadership teams are valued and rewarded as if they were captains of industry. But we have seen that high salaries do not equate to visionary and inspiring leaders. Where in the next few months, whether from the ashes of existing councils or elsewhere, are the leadership teams able to design, manage and deliver a democratic process of change, teams with vision capable of driving through the reforms necessary for building a solid foundation for a sustainable financial future? Will today’s voting councillors know the answer to this fundamental human resources question?
It is said that people get the government they deserve. One thing is for sure; the people of Northamptonshire will soon know what they are going to get. For what the people of Northamptonshire are about to receive, should they be truly thankful?
Written by Harry Mellor originally for the Northamptonshire Green Party